For plenty of young girls growing up in the late 90s and early 00s, life revolved around one near-identical commodity: the Olsen twins. After making their joint debut aged nine months taking turns playing Michelle Tanner on American sitcom Full House, the sisters were thrown into a never-ending cycle of appearing in feel-good, trashy flicks for their equally juvenile audience.
What followed can only be described as global pandemonium – there were books, video games, and clothing ranges that sold around the globe. Kids got their photo taken outside Club Rush in the Bahamas after it was featured in their 2001 vacation caper Holiday In The Sun even though they were too young to get in (…perhaps this one was just me). Regardless of the vast difference in their lifestyle from almost all of their tween fanbase, Mary-Kate and Ashley defined a generation.
Though it wasn’t their last joint film appearance (this would be 2004’s New York Minute), their final direct-to-video release, 2003’s The Challenge, seemed like an abrupt end to the strong Y2K girlie vibes that Mary-Kate and Ashley had become known for.
Set in Mexico, the film follows the format of the then-fledgling US reality game show of the same name, pitting two teams of contestants against each other to scoop the ultimate cash prize. Mary-Kate plays Shane, an LA girl looking to align her chakras and keep it real, while Ashley stars as Lizzie, the wound-up Washington DC prodigy who’s thinking big and dressing for it too. Of course, the pair hate each other after their parents’ messy divorce sent them to opposite sides of the US.
So far, it’s a classic MK&A narrative. Even their character stereotypes could be guessed to perfection, with Ashley once again playing the preppy hyper-femme and Mary-Kate channelling the pretty tomboy who plays with fire. Where The Challenge begins to differ is in its narrative journey. Most of the nifty 92-minute runtime is plagued by competition footage, with contestants either eating raw eggs to win a wooden trophy or cheering each other on to cross a rickety bridge suspended over choppy waters. On-camera gameplay blurs with behind-the-scenes scheming, as viewers are also introduced to the producers that control the show’s output. Where things get really meta is when we see why Shane and Lizzie are actually there — to boost poor ratings thanks to their unpleasant family history.
To the 8-year-old girls that wanted to see the Olsen twins as lifelong besties, it’s a narrative decision that probably falls flat. For adults watching with hindsight, it’s a nasty reminder of what the sisters were actually subjected to off-camera. As the commercial cash cows of noughties America, the Olsens were merchandised in every possible way. Graduating from Full House to The Adventures of Mary-Kate and Ashley and You’re Invited To… sub-franchises, their reign of multimedia blossomed into shows like Two Of A Kind and So Little Time. It’s arguably their later films that do the best work, from 1999’s Passport To Paris through to 2002’s When In Rome. A lot is achieved in a short space of time, but their formulaic approach and the same three directors on rotation equals profit.
Simply put, The Challenge is the arguable end of their tween direct-to-video pipeline because its story makes the Olsen twins unmarketable. Sure, watching one of them eat worms is gross, primary school humour, but the psychological warfare packed into the gameshow and world of reality TV are too far removed from what kids want. The entire trailer for the real show plays out in the opening minutes, morphing into an advert for a TV series that’s looking to piggyback off the established success of the Olsens. Mary-Kate and Ashley are clearly itching to play with nuance and gravitas, their now 17 years of age pushing them toward bigger artistic curiosities. Combined with the Olsen’s growing discomfort with their position, audience and creator can no longer serve each other.
That being said, the film still holds key Olsen moments, and each is when The Challenge is its strongest. It uses the “twin 1 is X and twin 2 is Y” theme to its advantage, ultimately making the unit stronger than ever, as we knew it would. The girls frolic to upbeat music and go a little boy crazy like in all MK&A films, making us hark for the glory days when all seemed well. The film is self-aware too, acting as a sign-off that brings past film boyfriends back for one final hurrah. Ironically, if the film was removed and isolated from both the supply and demand of 00s tweens and the Olsen canon, it’s actually not that hideous.
Even so, The Challenge’s significance as the end of an era makes a lot of sense 20 years on. At the time, general DVD sales were just about to nosedive to levels that never picked up again, which wasn’t helped by the introduction of Blu-Ray in 2006. As DVD sales peaked in 2005, it’s possible that Olsen tween movies might have had a few years left, but the change in industry pace coincided with Mary-Kate and Ashley’s complete withdrawal from acting altogether, instead opting to focus on fashion design (their signature brand, The Row, is a go-to among the A-List). Both things happening at once was a turning point in early 2000s culture, as networks pivoted to more on-channel tween film releases like The Cheetah Girls and High School Musical.
Their final film, 2004’s New York Minute, brings these superficially fun themes back to the fore, and the girls bow out in style. The Olsen furore might have died slightly after The Challenge, but the direct-to-video release signifies the true end of their acting career – and how a generation of children consumed their icons. We might now only pick up one of their DVDs if we’re visiting our parents and don’t have the WiFi password, but for a generation of adults, Mary Kate and Ashley’s direct-to-video adventures inspired wanderlust, romance and career aspirations.
Published 3 May 2023